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A Small, Popular Glasshouse Café In KL Was Their Ticket To Building A Major F&B Group

When I think about glasshouse cafes, Pokok.KL is one of the first few that comes to mind. It may be a small one, but every time I visit, the queue never shortens to less than 40 minutes. 

As a testament to its popularity, it serves up to 400 pax per weekday and 1,000 pax/day on weekends. 

“Within 8 days from our soft launch in October 2018, we had an overwhelming response on 7 November 2018, which was a Deepavali Public Holiday.”

“More than 500 people visited our tiny cafe that day. Needless to say, we were extremely ill-prepared for it,” Datin Christine Bong, co-founder of Brickhouse Group, shared with Vulcan Post. 

Brickhouse Group is behind Pokok.KL, amongst other F&B services like more cafes, catering and events.

Their popularity and competitiveness in the F&B industry today came from humble beginnings though, and a small glasshouse cafe in 2014.

Targeting The Student Crowd At First

Prior to Pokok.KL, Datin Christine and her then-friend, now-husband and business partner Dato’ Sharon invested in their flagship cafe called “The Glasshouse Cafe”.

Pokok.KL on a quiet day, which rarely ever happens / Image Credit: Brickhouse Group

Dato’ Sharon Haniffa is the other co-founder of Brickhouse Group, and whose family owns and operates MAHSA University. 

There was a space available where Pokok.KL is today, so the 2 of them co-invested RM60,000 together to build a small 250sqft glasshouse cafe. 

Brickhouse Group was also established the same year and operated cafes in several universities and eventually in MaGIC.

The cafes inside other university premises were:

  • Nottingham University, Treehouse Cafe 
  • Multimedia University, Cyberjaya Campus, Warehouse Cafe 
  • MAHSA University, Bandar Saujana Putra Campus, Lakehouse Cafe 

Events management was never their original intent for the cafe and brand, but operating cafes inside universities posed one problem to them: semester breaks. 

They had to figure out how to sustain the business during semester breaks which are 3-4 months on an average, hence events and catering came into the picture.

Catering with class / Image Credit: Brickhouse Group

“When catering and events picked up and overshadowed the revenue from our university cafes, we had made the tough call to close all university premises and consolidate the team,” Datin Christine recalled. 

“We had always felt that the Glasshouse Cafe would gain favour with the public with a solid kitchen that served food that was well accepted by the clients that we catered for. In June 2018, we commenced on the building and development of Pokok.KL, and the rest is history.”

Hungry For Growth

In just 6 years, Brickhouse Group has 6 establishments which include catering, events management, grocery and convenience stores.

Their team would pivot often to grab business opportunities to grow the brand.

After learning how to run a small business, how to make coffee and how to create simple SOPs for a cafe in the first year, they used this experience the next year to open the 3 aforementioned university cafes.

The year after that, they pivoted to catering and events to sustain themselves during semester breaks. This entailed working 20 hours a day, 7 days a week.

They ended up closing a few outlets but continued retraining their staff to become well-versed with catering and events.

Their fourth year marked a major year of growth. Despite having almost all outlets closed, their revenue was actually 3x of the previous year’s.

“The first 2 months were a steep learning curve while we had to hire, learn, unlearn and relearn as the queues never wavered. Serving food fresh and hot and fast is a lot more difficult than it looks, even more so when it’s in large numbers,” Datin Christine recalled of Pokok.KL’s early days.

Two of their establishments next to each other on MAHSA grounds / Image Credit: Brickhouse Group

With extra manpower sourced from Brickhouse Group’s events and accounts team, Pokok.KL was able to keep chugging on and even expanded.

They continued improving their recipes and services and made about RM11 million in revenue that year across the group’s businesses.

This year, despite the pandemic, their hard work enabled them to rake in RM3.9 million.

Finding Ways To Pivot Through The Pandemic

With events being a seasonal business, their monthly revenue is bound to fluctuate, but the pandemic worsened the situation.

They went from catering for up to 2,000 pax over 2 days to an almost immediate halt. 

However, pivoting their business to adapt through hiccups like these are what they’re good at, as they’ve shown throughout their years of operation. 

Currently, they’re developing an Express Events and Virtual Events platform to cushion the impact. 

“The first MCO was extremely tough on us on all verticals of our businesses, and we utilised our previous grocery knowledge to launch an online grocery delivery,” Datin Christine shared with Vulcan Post. 

“We have an extremely resilient team that rallied hard together to source, pack, deliver, handle customers and conduct marketing activities, all of whom were previously doing different jobs. That helped us to survive.”

The Brickhouse team / Image Credit: Brickhouse Group

On the bright side, they are still looking forward to their future projects that would expand the Brickhouse Group.

Some of them include expanding their central kitchen, creating a classy halal dimsum joint, establishing a colourful pool side cafe, and even a co-working space. 

“The ability to pivot, manage costs and remain positive during this pandemic is the only impetus for survival,” Datin Christine concluded.

  • You can learn more about Brickhouse Group here, and Pokok.KL here.
  • You can learn more about other Malaysian startups we’ve written about here.

Featured Image Credit: Datin Christine Bong, co-founder of Brickhouse Group

Categories: Entrepreneur, Malaysian, F&B

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